(pre-censored time poster of SXXX Durga)
Sexy Durga is now officially S Durga. The posters of this exceptionally free movie (as in poetry written in free verse, here a film without a script, as the film director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan says, he could make a movie ‘right here and now, and about you.’) now are designed like this ‘Sxxx Durga’, perhaps a more potent and direct comment on the decision of the Indian Film Certification Board (aka Censor Board). How do you read it now? S triple X Durga. All over the world triple X stand for either rum or pornography. Hence, if the Censor Board was planning to avoid the word ‘sexy’ from the film’s title to purify the word ‘Durga’ of all the bad connotations which could have otherwise been imposed on it by the word ‘sexy’, now this Durga stands like an open invitation to wine and fornicate. Censorship could be counterproductive linguistically if not always in the box office. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan says that whether it is S Durga or Y (why) Dugra, it is always Sexy Durga in the public imagination for it has been branded as that. Anyway, when I look at it, the S stands more for Sanal Kumar than Sexy; hence, here is a film, Sanal’s Durga, which is purely a director’s movie, exactly the way his two previous films were (Oralppokkam and Ozhivu Divasathe Kali).
This Durga film has been in the news for wrong reasons and the latest being its ouster from the International Film Festival of India (IFFK) 2017 from the Indian Panorama section, along with another movie titled ‘Nude’. It is an irony that as Indians we have embraced all what have been American and liberal, and still an anachronism, in the name of culture we are still holding on to some done to death notions; a divine name should not be used out of context at all (read mythological context). Coming to the secular sphere, our politics also have taken a downswing, showing now tolerance for humour as the state directly involves in the performances of the stand up comedians and cartoonists. It would be an understatement to say that when the Jokers start ruling the world, the superheroes of the world simply are forced to go back to the pages of comic books or accommodate themselves in the format of 3D movies, which oddly get promoted as the most hilarious of superhero movies. Times have changed, brother.
(director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan)
Sanal’s Durga (or Sxxx Durga) starts with an extensive documentation of a local Kerala festival where Garudan Thookkam is performed. In Garudan Thookkam, male devotees are sent into a devotional frenzy then their body muscles are pierced with iron clips, then they are hung from certain appendage, and are taken for the town circumambulation, from the premises of the temple. There is also a ritual of fire walk. Like in other movies of the direction, the opening shots do not really function as the establishment shots as in the mainstream film parlance. They drag on and on to the point some of the audience negotiate their time of quitting. The quotidian unravelling of events in the beginning (like an off day picnic on the banks of a village stream and general ramblings in his An Off Day’s Game- Ozhivu Divasathe Kali and here the temple ritual), later at some point we understand are for creating a social fabric of order and conformity that would function as the logic of comprehension for the events that follow the rituals. The opening statement from Ramayana, speaks of a wanton woman Soorpanakha, sister of mighty Ravana, whose disfiguring perhaps triggers the abduction of Sita. The preamble is clear enough, woman, divine or profane is treated as a pawn in the hands of man and she is denied of her agencies; Soorpanakha is punished for expressing her love for a couple of handsome guys in the forest and Sita was abducted as a retaliatory act.
In the temple Goddess Durga is worshipped and the male devotees are ready to sacrifice their comforts of all kinds and are ready to push themselves to the zone of self torturing. But just out there, the story is different. The temple ritual starts in the day time where everything has a semblance of normality. By the time it turns dark, everything both in the divine and the secular realms changes their shape and character. Kabeer and his north Indian girl friend, Durga are in a nocturnal situation and for them it is not an adventure at all. Like in any other movies, as the protagonists are found in a situation (beyond logic), here too Kabeer and Durga find themselves in a situation; they want to go to the nearest railway station but the time is so odd and the location where they are is so desolate that they need a sort of hitchhiking. Two guys in a Maruti Omni (later on we see it transforming into a hell raisers chariot with a sinister look and eerie ambience) offer them a lift and they get into the car. Then the chase starts. Chase is perhaps not the right word because nobody is chasing them and the ones who chase the couple are very much with them inside the car. In fact the chase is outside the car; the chasers are us, the viewers and our fear and our irresistible desire to do good and save the couple. So we are the pursuers, moving towards the edge of the seats, our do gooders’ sorry asses.
(a still from the movie SXXX Durga)
I am not going into the story in details. Three times they get out of the car or rather they are dropped willingly by the occupants of the car. And each time, along the desolated highway, they find moral police ready to question them. Initially it was the real police at a checking point letting them go as the police understand them sympathetically as ‘lovers’. In the second situation they are literally caught by two gents (in their conspicuous white dhoti and shirt, and two wheeler. In Kerala they are called Pakal Manyanmaar- Day time gentlemen). Kabeer and Kannan are saved once again by the hooligans who come by that way. With no other way to turn, the couple get into the car once again. The freewheeling chat inside the car is eerily jovial but lingering around at the vicinities of an impending threat or a rape attempt. On the way, two more guys get into the car. The nameless four (as their names are irrelevant because in any part of our country, we could see them speaking different language but behaving exactly the same in a given situation) harass the couple in such way that it is a verbal stripping and raping; not of the girl alone but of the boy as well. At some point, Durga wants to pee urgently, and the four guys keep talking about peeing. One could imagine the kind of claustrophobia and shame that a girl would feel in such a situation. Each time, the guys hurt them with jocular banter, they repeat that they were not hurting them at all. After the fourth attempt to get out of the car and walk, they never reach the railway station. To make matters worse, we see trains passing by, showing that there is redemption, freedom and safety in the vicinity but there is no way to reach there.
The film has been talked about as something that shows the hypocrisy of Malayali morality. Of course there are a couple of incidents in the movie where we see it as a geographically specific movie. The ideological apparatuses of the state, police and family, are from Kerala, Kerala police and a Kerala family respectively. The police overlooks a possible abduction, harassment and a rape case and let the culprits go and secondly, the family (the middle class family that lives in house with multiple security facilities like gate, grill and door), the middle aged husband and wife who come out hearing the commotion on the road stand, stare and go back, and never intervene. The two intercuts where we see the temple rituals again, do not necessarily have direct connections with the narrative; in fact the story could be happening in a night, in any part of any country in the world where such apathy rules. And also the ritual could be happening in any village temple in any of the Indian states. Hence, Sanal’s Durga is an Indian movie (we should stop calling Pan Indian movie, Bollywood, Regional movie etc. If there is a relevant movie from any part of Indian, it is an Indian movie. Lucky we have a word like Bollywood so that we could discern sensibility and sense from what we call Bollywood capers.
(still from the film)
Sanal’s Durga is an Indian movie where mythologies of religion have become inextricably a part of the political process. In turn this blurring of boundaries has started becoming visible in the social life also. Social ethics seem to have given way to religious dictums and the politics swayed by such religious scriptures. However, when it comes to the social evils, no scripture seems to be withholding its bad elements within the legal systems. There is a free for all condition when the law is not looking. In the movie, the night is symbolic as evil could take place anywhere if the day’s light could be blinded and the pace of harassment could be accelerated and the victims could be captivated. The comparative fabric of ritualistic performativity becomes important in this context, the social evil could be sanctioned if it has ritualistic/religious consent and authorisation. In the temple ritual we see Durga is worshipped and the males are ready to supplicate before her. But out there in the road, a woman is not safe even when she is with her companion or spouse. There have been incidents such as these but the victims were saved only because they were not inside a pacing vehicle. But look at the reports from elsewhere in which we get to read about girls and women getting raped or harassed in the moving vehicles. In fact, as the director at one point says, the title of the movie could be anything but Durga becomes appropriate when she has the ritualistic sanction of being the annihilator of the evil. But she is absolutely helpless when she is on the road.
(produced Shajee Mathew of the Niv Art Movies receiving award from the CM of Kerala)
When Sanal’s Durga was presented in many film festivals abroad, it had been hailed as a thriller road movie. In many road movies we have seen the hero and the hero taking charge of themselves; it is their journey of initiation; it is also a coming of age type of narrative. They encounter rouges along the way but they save their skin at the nick of the time. They also meet benevolent guys living in cabins. Finally there is a sense of romance budding somewhere in the heat and dust of the roads. But Sanal’s Durga is absolutely different in all these counts. There is only fear and speed; only speed and fear in this movie. As one of the audience said after watching the movie that she thought the girl would be raped at some point, the narrative of the movie also helps surface the latent evil even in the secular viewer; the girl’s future (the couple’s future) is abstract; would they get raped as we leave the movie after eighty five minutes which is the duration of the movie. So we want a conclusion, and it is the eventual rape of the girl. Now in Sanal’s Durga, we are left without that conclusion; like a thorn that has left under the sole, pricking but not able to locate, the future of Durga haunts us. This film should have been a proud presentation of the New India but unfortunately we are living the same old feudal India where Durga is worshipped in the temple and pushed into bottomless pits of harassments on the road, which perhaps winds through our bedrooms and drawing rooms too. Niv Art Movies, a joint venture of Aruna and Mathew of Delhi has been investing in good experimental movies and it seems to be a rare collaboration between the producers and the director as ‘Durga’ is their third collaboration. I wish Sanal all the success in future too.